Archive for December 11th, 2018

Theophrastus. Never heard of him? He could be a solution to your holiday gift-giving.

Tuesday, December 11th, 2018
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Poet and classicist

Stuck for a gift-giving idea for the holidays? Worry no more! Theophrastus is your answer. Never heard of him? You’re not alone. But according to MacArthur “genius” awarded poet A.E. Stallings (we’ve written on her work with the Greek refugee effort here), Pamela Mensch’s translation of the philosopher’s Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior is “a perfect gift for the person in your life who mentions Plato’s cave or Zeno’s paradox, or wears a bow tie, or uses a fountain pen, or enjoys a bit of harmless armchair misanthropy.”

In the Wall Street Journal, she writes:

Among the lesser-known writers from classical Athens is a pupil of Aristotle (later his successor as head of the Peripatetic school of philosophy), whom he dubbed Theophrastus (“he who speaks like a god”). Theophrastus had been born Tyrtamus on the island of Lesbos around 370 B.C. and had moved to Athens to study philosophy. An immensely popular speaker, he attracted audiences of 2,000 strong at his public lectures. His life coincided with many of the historical vicissitudes of fourth-century Athens, including the rise of the kingdom of Macedon to the north under Philip II and the eventual domination of all of Greece by Alexander the Great —another pupil of Aristotle’s—including Athens, already diminished by its defeat in the Peloponnesian War.

Although Theophrastus wrote on a wide variety of subjects, he is known for his surviving work on plants (he is considered the father of botany) and an elegant, witty little study of human nature known as “Characters,” in which he depicts 30 different men, or types, representative of particular vices or foibles. It was humorous and sharply observed, with details of quotidian life that might belong in a novelist’s notebook, and there had been nothing quite like it before.

An example? Try this:

Man of the hour

Some types and characters are specific to Athenian free-born men and don’t necessarily translate easily to modern generalities. The Coward is afraid to sail (the ancient equivalent of having a fear of flying), seeing pirates and shipwreck at every turn. But most of his entry is given over to his avoiding the front-line of battle and hiding in sick bay—all free-born Athenian men had mandatory military service and were likely to have seen action. The entry for the Superstitious Man is entertaining less because we see in him a modern type (though his excessive hand washing might be OCD) than because we see superstitions that we share or learn about ancient Athenian ones we don’t. Thus a weasel (the Greek equivalent of a cat) crossing the road unnerves him. But we also find that he must shout “Mighty Athena!” if he hears the hoot of an owl. The Social Climber enjoys conspicuous consumption, even concerning his pets: He buys his jackdaw a tiny shield and ladder so that it will look like a hoplite scaling a wall, and when his imported Maltese lapdog dies, he erects a tombstone to this scion of Malta.

But there is also a Newshound who spreads some “fake news,” and a man so obnoxious that he flashes his genitals at free-born women (obnoxious indeed!). The Vulgar Man gives Too Much Information about his herbal colonic at the dinner table. There are cheapskates galore, dissemblers, busybodies, dullards and charlatans. The worst of the lot seems to be the Friend of Scoundrels, who does sound strangely contemporary, mocking good men, calling rogues “independent thinkers” and declaring: “We won’t have anyone willing to take trouble on behalf of the public good if we reject such men.”